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A novel approach to investigate recursion and iteration in visual hierarchical processing


Martins,  Mauricio
Department of Cognitive Biology, University Vienna, Austria;
Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt University Berlin, Germany;
Department Neurology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Martins, M., Martins, I. P., & Fitch, W. T. (2016). A novel approach to investigate recursion and iteration in visual hierarchical processing. Behavior Research Methods, 48(4), 1421-1442. doi:10.3758/s13428-015-0657-1.

We describe a new method to explore recursive cognition in the visual domain. We define recursion as the ability to represent multiple hierarchical levels using the same rule, entailing the ability to generate new levels beyond those previously encountered. With this definition recursion can be distinguished from general hierarchical embedding. To investigate this recursion/hierarchy distinction in the visual domain, we developed two novel methods: The Visual Recursion Task (VRT), in which an inferred rule is used to represent new hierarchical levels, and the Embedded Iteration Task (EIT), in which additional elements are added to an existing hierarchical level. We found that adult humans can represent recursion in the visuo-spatial domain, and that this ability is distinct from both general intelligence and the ability to represent iterative processes embedded within hierarchical structures. Compared with embedded iteration, visual recursion correlated positively with other recursive planning tasks (Tower of Hanoi), but not with specific visuo-spatial resources (spatial short-term memory and working memory). We conclude that humans are able to use recursive representations to process complex visuo-spatial hierarchies and that our visual recursion task taps into specific cognitive resources. This method opens exciting opportunities to explore the relationship between visual recursion and language.